With great online power, comes great responsibility

The dawn of the 21st century, especially the last eight years, has been synonymous with change. In a rapidly evolving global technology sphere, the biggest story has been the rise of the social media. As India's establishment and the parental generation come to terms with this reality, the youngsters are well and truly submerged in this maze. But there are also a number of questions that are being raised. What is the role of social media in our lives? Is censorship the way forward in dealing with social media?

Like it or not, the social media has the ability to put issues on the map not only in India but across the world. Be it Tahirir square or Jantar Mantar, the speed and power of the social media is unquestionable. The real-time nature of the medium and its rapid pace make it best suited to a young country like India. The entire 'India Against Corruption' movement became so popular primarily because of the power of the social media. This power is derived from an innate sense of democracy that it thrives upon and a sense of fairness that is beyond question.

In a country like India, which has a million issues, the social media provides its users an opportunity to air views without restrictions. The common man on the street feels empowered to interact and there is an increase in awareness of national affairs. This ability -- to be the most democratic tool for the individual on a daily basis -- has made the social media a power to reckon with in public discourse in the country. One example is the upsurge of the centre-of-right views on Twitter that is balancing the center-of-left views in mainstream media. This balance in perspectives from both ends of the spectrum --which has been missing for a long time -- assuming it doesn't involve filthy language, is the true democratization of public opinion in urban India. However, there are issues that need to be addressed.

Social media per se is rapid and impulsive. As such, the points raised on platforms such as Twitter tend to be statements that are spontaneous and at times not necessarily in-depth. The line between glorification and destruction of individuals is so thin that both can sometimes occur simultaneously! The addictive nature of the medium is also a cause of concern especially for the younger generation. Moreover, one of the most complex issues has been the amount of hatred that is spread around the social media spectrum irrespective of ideology. Be it the extreme right or the extreme left, spewing of venom and hate is something that we as a society should not tolerate. Debating ideas and ideologies is in the ethos of our great cultural heritage; hatred has never been part of it.

However, censorship is the last thing that's needed in handling such situations. Suppression of views would only exacerbate the situation at hand. The level of discretion that comes out of censorship is not pragmatic and could set a dangerous precedent in restricting views of civil society and journalists. The best solution to this crisis is to have a process of engagement with the people who are part of the show, the internet users. More than 80 % of them are people who are inclusive and tolerant individuals. The ugly talk is derived from the fringe elements within the community.

The state and organizations such as Twitter needs to engage with the current users to create a sense of awareness about ways to help block violence and hatred being abetted online. For example, a campaign could be launched in the backdrop of the northeast exodus, highlighting the roles played by social media, both positive and negative, with concrete evidence. In addition, the state could engage with influential users to help spread the word about mischievous elements who violate the code of conduct assigned by Twitter or Facebook. The social media platforms could further enhance their spam mechanisms to levels that inhibit the flow of hatred amidst various communities. In essence, a self-regulating mechanism is created, not an imposed one.

The youth will no longer take impositions and agendas lying down. They need reason and logic and they are daring enough to fight status quo. In such an environment, there has to be a mature and a streamlined response from the state. The social media users on their part need to build collaborative walls to protect their internet space from being polluted by inappropriate interactions.

As they say, with power comes responsibility. This applies to both the constituents of social media and its regulators.

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